Seattle Stops Landlords from Checking Criminal Histories of Tenants

By Michael Klazema on 6/4/2019

For employment and housing situations alike, banning the box is becoming a common legislative requirement. By barring employers and landlords from asking about criminal history on job or housing applications and delaying background checks until later in the screening process, lawmakers are hoping to make it easier for ex-offenders to re-enter society.

In Seattle, the movement has gone one step further: the “Fair Chance Housing Ordinance” prohibits landlords from conducting criminal background checks on their tenants at all. Per a report from NBC News, some landlords in Seattle are not happy about the ordinance—and they are fighting back.

Seattle’s fair housing ordinance is the most extreme such law in the country. Other major cities, such as Detroit and Chicago, have banned the box for housing applications but have not banned background checks.

The only landlords in Seattle who can still run criminal history checks on their tenants are those who rent out rooms in their own homes or accessory dwelling units on their properties. The NBC News article notes that sex offender checks are allowed “in some circumstances.”

On behalf of several landlords in the city of Seattle, the Pacific Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the city targeting the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance. The lawsuit alleges that the ordinance violates due process and overreaches by barring landlords from accessing public records. The Washington Supreme Court will hear the case in June.

This ordinance is not the first local law that Seattle has implemented with the stated goal of making housing more accessible for all. A few years ago, the city passed the “first-in-time” law, a regulation demanding that a landlord accept the first qualified tenant who applied to live in a rental property. The law was intended to end racial discrimination in housing but was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by a state court: the “first-in-time” law, the court ruled, violated a private property rights provision laid out in the state constitution.

The city ultimately appealed the decision, and the case is still active. Courts will decide both the fate of the “first-in-time” law and the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance this June.

Ethan Blevins, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney participating in the lawsuit over the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, told NBC News that the law overreaches by leaving landlords unable to vet their tenants properly. Landlords, Blevins said, need to be able to make decisions that protect their interests, their property, and other tenants. Not having the option of looking into a prospective tenant’s criminal history makes those peace-of-mind decisions difficult, he claimed.

Proponents of the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance argue that it helps to reduce recidivism by making housing more accessible for individuals with criminal backgrounds.



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